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PERSPECTIVES

National Public Radio's oral history project records the stories of our valley

When Robert Sage's uncle gave him a sow, the boy envisioned his fortune. Weaner pigs sold for &

36;5, a tidy sum during the Great Depression, and this was a sow that threw off litters of 15.

The boy soon had &

36;200 squirreled away in a school savings program. A Central Point banker talked his mother into putting his fortune into a regular savings account, for the interest, then embezzled the money.

Banks were going broke all over the country, but had the money been left in the school account, it would have been safe. So much for fast money.

Thursday, in an Airstream trailer parked in the lot across from the main Medford library, Bob Sage, now 85, was the first person to record stories from his life.

As part of a National Public Radio oral history project called StoryCorps, Southern Oregonians trooped into the trailer in pairs, one in each pair to act as the interviewer, the other to answer questions.

— It's part a national project inspired by the work of writer and oral historian Studs Terkel and sponsored by NPR, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Saturn car company. Recordings of the 40-minute sessions will be given to participants and, with their permission, sent to the Library of Congress.

The project began when documentary producer Dave Isay set up a booth in Grand Central Terminal in New York City, started recording people and pitched the project to NPR.

It was a natural, says NPR's David Umansky, of Washington, D.C. We're always trying to get everyday people on the air.

Excerpts air on NPR's Morning Edition Fridays on Jefferson Public Radio 89.1-FM.

About 2,000 interviews have been collected. The goal is 250,000 in 10 years. It is the largest project of its kind anybody can remember.

The cost is put at about &

36;2 million for the first year as trailers travel the nation. JPR's Ron Kramer says the station asked to be counted in as soon as he heard of the project. He said JPR paid several thousand dollars.

Umansky says the Northwest was a hotspot in responses. The trailer with the recording booth came down Interstate 5 from Portland and Salem and will be recording across from the Medford Library until Nov. 7.

Project staffers expect 120 people to record during the visit. Anybody is eligible. Although the slots filled quickly, people may get on a waiting list in case of cancellations. Call 800-850-4406, or visit , or .

Volunteer interviewers and interviewees do the recordings with the help of facilitators who sit in and take care of the gear. Karen Dimattia, 31, of Brooklyn, N.Y., is one.

Dimattia says Monday's interviews in the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem were some of the most compelling she's heard so far.

Prison officials contacted NPR when they heard about StoryCorps and asked if they would be interested in recordings by prisoners. Very much, was the answer.

The interviews took place behind bars. Prisoners serving long sentences for robbery, rape and murder were interviewed by prison officials or fellow prisoners. These were men who'd had time to reflect. One prisoner of 32 years was interviewed by an official with 26 years on the job.

They sounded like old friends, Dimattia says.

Every inmate I talked to said they had nobody to blame but themselves, says Sarah Kramer, 24, of New York City.

Inmates talked about drugs and violence and making mistakes and growing old behind bars.

I think that's the whole point of StoryCorps, says Eliza Betlinger, 29, of Brooklyn. People are fascinating.

People like Sage. He grew up on a farm that had been in the family since 1883, graduated from Medford High School (today's South High) in 1937 and taught at Jackson School.

His stories, many typed up ahead of time and told to son Peter, are full of gentle self-mockery and seasoned by time. He remembers his grandfather asking him when he was 15 what he wanted to be when he grew up.

A baseball player, he said. Or maybe a boxer. The old man laughed. He framed another pig recollection as a lesson in sex education on the farm in those pre-sex-ed days.

Other stories came back. One about how Sage Lane came to be named for a relative. One about coaching in Medford under University of Oregon and Nike legend-to-be Bill Bowerman. He was telling that one to a young woman who drew a blank on the name.

She didn't know who Bill Bowerman was, Sage says, shaking his head. That's why I did this interview. I figured you'd better get it down before when you pass from the scene, or they might not remember.

PERSPECTIVES"bvarble@mailtribune.com.

NPR facilitator Sarah Kramer shows Robin DeBates and Rosemary Dunn Dalton the cue to begin recording their oral history session Thursday afternoon in downtown Medford. Mail Tribune / Roy Musitelli - Mail Tribune Roy Musitelli